21 октября 2015 13:06

Georgia breakaway region eyes Crimea-style vote on joining Russia


Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia has said it plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia but the Kremlin appeared to pour cold water on the idea Tuesday, AFP reports.

Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia has said it plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia but the Kremlin appeared to pour cold water on the idea Tuesday, AFP reports.

Announced by the leader of the breakaway statelet, the plan drew an angry reaction from Georgia, which called it part of "Russia's creeping annexation".

The Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away after civil wars in the 1990s that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Moscow recognised their independence after fighting a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and has been supporting the two regions financially.

"Yesterday the president initiated the procedure to hold a referendum," a spokeswoman for regional leader Leonid Tibilov told AFP.

The idea of plebiscite was raised at a Monday meeting between Tibilov and President Vladimir Putin's aide, Vladislav Surkov, in South Ossetia, the regional administration said.

"We should make our historic choice and reunite with brotherly Russia to ensure the safety and prosperity of our republic and our people for centuries to come," Tibilov was quoted as saying in a statement.

All further steps would be implemented in coordination with Moscow, he said. 

Tibilov's spokeswoman, Tamara Kelekhsayeva, told AFP the reaction of Putin's aide was "positive", saying she believed most of the region's 50,000 people would be in favour of joining Russia.

She declined to provide any further details.

But on Tuesday the Kremlin -- apparently mindful of Western criticism and the possible implications of such a move -- denied such a proposal had been made at the meeting with Surkov.

"It's been known for a long time that many in South Ossetia are in favour of integration with Russia," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

"And as far as we understand, this is what Mr Tibilov was speaking about."

Georgia angrily reacted to the proposal. 

"It contradicts norms of international law and proves yet again that Russia’s policy towards Georgia is inconsistent and provocative," said deputy foreign minister Gigi Gigiadze.

  'Dubious asset' 

Political analyst Alexei Chesnakov, a former member of the Russian presidential administration, said Tibilov's plan was not likely to receive robust Kremlin support.

"The Kremlin is inclined to see the proposal of the South Ossetian president about conducting a referendum as his personal initiative," Chesnakov told AFP.

Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank, said it was obvious Moscow did not want to conduct a Crimea-style referendum on the fate of South Ossetia.

"Russia does not want to ruin its ties with Georgia completely," Kalachev told AFP, calling the cash-strapped breakaway region a "dubious" asset.

The West slapped sanctions on Moscow for supporting insurgents in the self-proclaimed republics of the country's east and for annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula after Crimea voted to break away from Ukraine in a referendum the West said was illegitimate.

Russia's ties with the West remain strained, and Moscow's military intervention in Syria has caused new tensions.

South Ossetia has already voted twice on its future. 

In 1992, a majority voted in favour of joining Russia, while a plebescite in 2006 saw most support the idea of remaining independent.

Last March, Russia signed a wide-ranging alliance agreement with South Ossetia that further cemented its control over the breakaway territory.

Under the controversial pact, Russia became responsible for defending the self-declared republic. 

The treaty drew criticism from Georgia and the West, with both NATO and the United States saying they would not recognise it.

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